October 3, 1980
Cowens was special, but he didn't want to be.
The picture I always thought described Dave Cowens best was the fuzziest one of him that ever appeared in this paper.
It was taken when Cowens had gone into his first retirement, leaving the Celtics in the early stages of the 1976 season. He had traveled a bit, hung around a bit, and then suddenly reappeared at a weeknight Garden game that marked the coaching return of old teammate Don Nelson. He sat in one of those private sky-view boxes, away from everyone, and was captured only on his way out the door.
The photographer was running in search of the Celtics' center when suddenly the Celtics' center was in front of him. The photographer was surprised. Cowens was surprised. The photographer hurriedly snapped. Cowens hurriedly covered half his face with his arm.
The result was out-of-focus perfect.
"That's it," I remember saying when the picture was run the next morning, Cowens looking as if were a witness on the way to the murder trial at the county courthouse. "That's Dave Cowens."
Fame just never was part of his style.
He was not exactly the Garbo of the grand professional athletic world, but he still was a misfit. He was the perpetual newcomer to the scene, no matter how long he was in it. Naive. That's the word. He was you and I, suddenly plunged into a situation where microphones were shoved into our faces and the things we had to say were recorded instead of set free in the air as they usually were. The difference was that you and I probably would have changed if we were in the situation long enough. We even might have liked it. Dave Cowens never changed.
He always was the untouched visitor from Newport, Ky. Oh, he developed - he was here for 10 years and he went from the Friday-night, good-time guy who was involved in an assortment of barroom fights to a married father, more reflective, conscious of all sorts of problems - but that was a natural development. It wouldn't have been much different if he had gone directly from Florida State with his criminology degree into a State Attorney's office. His charm was that he resisted all the other lures of what he did for a living. Stardom. He was natural.
The auto mechanics course at ITT Tech.
The crusade to preserve the farmland in Canton.
The first retirement.
The Christmas tree farm.
The year as coach.
He dealt with the NBA as if it were a Friday night beer league at the local YMCA. He had that sort of passion about it, that sort of enjoyment, especially when he was younger and did not hurt so much. The other guys in the other shirts were the other guys. He had that amateur involvement on a professional scale. He wanted to win because he wanted to win, not because winning was the way to move into another tax bracket. There was no varnish, no gloss on what he did. He was another guy playing basketball. He just got paid a lot of money for doing it.
"Why should anybody treat me any different?" he would ask.
"Because you are different," he would be told. "Because you're so good at what you do. There are a lot of people who would like to do what you do."
"It's a job," he would say. "Everybody has a job."
I always thought that his attitude was his greatest attribute, the same way Bill Russell's attitude was his greatest attribute. Dave Cowens could jump - that was his best physical asset, his jumping ability tied to his physical bulk - but that just put him on the court, made it possible for him to try to compete. His attitude was what made him special.
What was the term? The Look. It is hard to explain The Look, the outward appearance of Dave Cowens' attitude, but anyone who saw it will remember it. His face would develop a ferocity that few athletes ever muster. There would be a concentration, a one-dimensional drive, a fire - too strong a word? - that became the dominant part of the game for a minute, five minutes, an entire quarter in a couple of instances. The ball would be his. The game would be his. The other nine players on the court were just there as so many bumpers on the pinball table. He was the action, all of it.
Remember the time he went wild against Buffalo, scoring 20 playoff points in a quarter, The Look just about scaring everyone else off the floor? Remember the games against Jabbar, holding, fighting, drawing the big man away at times, then flying past? Remember the strange battles with McAdoo, fire against ice, lovely to watch? Remember the night Dave Cowens belted Houston's Mike Newlin with a blind-side block and then turned to referee Bill Jones and said, "Now that's a foul"? Remember the disgrace of Dave Cowens and the Celtics two years ago? Remember his promise to return with a vengeance, and remember how he did?
He was a special athlete in this city, 6 feet 8, fighting the big bruisers not only to a standstill but winning in the end. He not only kept the Celtics alive, he brought them two championships and brought people into the Garden as no one ever had done, not even Russell and Cousy and all the rest. He was a special person, too, uncomplicated in the age of the Reggie Bar, organic and easy in the time of the slick sell. He was unique. There will not be another Dave Cowens to arrive here. Not the same. Not even close.
When he retired Wednesday afternoon, 31 years old and with his bad feet and with his own letter of goodby in both Boston newspapers, I tried to remember the last time I had talked with him. I decided it was in the Garden locker room following the Celtics' elimination in the playoffs by the Philadelphia 76ers.
I believe the subject was natural childbirth. He was for it.
I knew he would be.